By Connie Leinbach
Rep. Paul Tine (U-Kitty Hawk) has introduced a bill to fund new ferry vessels from the general transportation budget and eliminate all ferry tolls.
The bill asks for $13.85 million to be appropriated from the Highway Fund in 2016 to 2017 and be a recurring fund for the the ferry division to do both rehab on ferries and also purchase new ones.
It allows for the Ferry Division of NCDOT to seek revenues from concession sales, sponsorships or other receipt-generating activity “not otherwise forbidden by applicable law,” and these funds can be used to fund ferry replacement.
The bill also calls for refunding, full or in part, prepaid commuter passes and any funds in this account are to be used for rehabilitation and replacement of ferry vessels and infrastructure at the NC State Shipyard and the system terminals.
Co-sponsored by representatives John Torbett (R-Gaston), Linda P. Johnson (R-Caburrus) and Phil Shepard (R-Onslow), the bill’s preamble calls it “an act to provide stability and predictability within the state ferry system by restoring state control to the setting of ferry tolls of ferries and other capital improvements, as recommended by the House Select Committee on Strategic Transportation Planning and Long Term Funding Solutions.”
Effectively, this would relieve the Albemarle Regional Planning Organization (ARPO) of approving ferry tolls to fund replacement boats.
“This is consistent with what we’ve tried to do the last couple of sessions,” Tine said in an interview on Friday.
Moreover, this bill came out of the Strategic Planning committee, chaired by Torbett, which visited mainland Hyde on and whom islanders greeted at the Swan Quarter ferry dock in January.
“This is a committee recommendation,” Tine said about his bill.
Tine said his bill is similar to one that is expected to be filed soon by Sen. Bill Cook (R-Beaufort) which asks for for the $23 million the Ferry Division has requested.
Tim Hass, Ferry Division spokesman, said $23 million is what the Ferry Division would like in order to fund all of their 10-year capital improvement projects.
Tine said he hopes one of these initiatives will finally pass since North Carolina has a reported $90 million surplus.
The General Assembly got back to work April 25 in what’s called a short session.
Since the NC legislature convenes for full sessions in odd years, the three-month or so time in which they convene in even-numbered years is called the short session.
Henri McClees, a lobbyist hired by Hyde and two other counties to fight ferry tolls, said that in these short sessions legislators usually like to be done by July 4. After that, they do their campaigning and reconvene in January.
These proposed bills stem from the need for money to pay for replacement ferries in the NC Ferry Division’s aging fleet.
Historically, ferry replacements were simply done by a legislative appropriation, but in 2013, the legislature decided to boot the hot potato issue of ferry funding down to the local level.
Then Gov. Pat McCrory divided the state into 10 districts, giving them each a pot of money in which to fund all transportation needs.
These districts are overseen by a Regional Planning Organization (RPO) composed of various elected officials, and these folks decide who gets a bridge or who gets a new ferry based on a complicated formula.
Ocracoke’s RPO is the Albemarle Regional Planning Organization (ARPO), which has $32 million per year to cover all infrastructure costs in the 10 eastern counties that compose this district.
The ARPO on April 27 agreed to wait to see if Cook’s and Tine’s bills pass, said Bill Rich, Hyde County manager, who attended the meeting, and if neither pass, the tolling of the Hatteras ferry looms.
McClees in an interview said it is time for islanders to write to members of the Senate Transportation Committee as to their positions on this subject.
“We like to hear what’s going on,” Tine said. “We like to hear from our constituents.”
McClees said constituents can write the same letter, but they should be sent individually to the senators.
Constituents also can call legislators’ offices and voice their opinion, or drop each senator a post card with their message.
Contact information on all of the state legislators can be found at www.ncleg.net, and all of the legislators’ emails follow the same convention, such as for Warren Daniel, who is a co-chair of the committee: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The other standing Senate Transportation Committee members are as follows: Bill Rabon, co-chairman; Warren Daniel, co-chairman, Kathy Harrington, vice-chairman; Wesley Meredith, co-chairman. Members: Jim Davis, Joel D. M. Ford, Rick Gunn, Ralph Hise, Joyce Krawiec, Paul A. Lowe Jr., Gladys Robinson, Erica Smith-Ingram and Tommy Tucker.